There are many considerations to make when you are writing a story, one of them being what literary form to engage. Is your story feeling the confines of the short story genre or becoming too diluted while reaching for a novel? We interviewed A.S. Patric in the lead up to his workshop, The Perfect Form of Prose Fiction: Novella Intensive, to find out more about the often difficult to define and ever-evolving genre of novellas.
What is a novella and what sets it apart from other writing forms?
A novella is a narrative fiction 10,000 to 60,000 words long - the space between a short story and a novel. What breeds in the expanse of that window is notoriously challenging to answer. The reason for the difficulty is that novels can be contrasted with short stories to thrash out qualities and potentials arising from the difference between Long and Short narrative structures. A novella is the best of both Long and Short literary forms but harder to classify because it falls between convenient binary oppositions. Novellas therefore do everything novels and short stories can, yet more often than not, a novella is generated by a commitment to more essential, purer storytelling.
What led you to decide to write your story ‘The Rattler’ as a novella rather than, say, a novel or a short story? Did you know it was going to be a novella when you started writing?
‘The Rattler’ was inspired by ‘The Overcoat’, a tragedy Gogol wrote about an office worker whose life is overturned by a new coat. While I enjoyed the story, I saw that with a slight twist it was a great premise for a comedy. So in ‘The Rattler’ a tram driver who desperately wants to be a writer gets a new office chair - it’s one of those monstrously ambitious ones made of leather and chrome, making him feel as though he’s in the cockpit of a Saturn V rocket. ‘The Rattler’ might have been a short story yet I found that the life of an aspiring writer, his wild hopes and desperation, his bittersweet consolations, were story elements I wanted (needed) to explore beyond the 5,000 word limit literary journals impose. The concision of a short fiction narrative style suited the tone of the narrative but it needed three times the space for story development. Even so, forcing ‘The Rattler’ to grow to the length of a novel would have killed it as a comedy.
You have written in various forms: novellas, novels and short stories. What do you like most about writing novellas?
Novellas continue to delight because they can so ideally balance all the story elements that inspire me in novels and short stories. The first real piece of work I put to paper was well in excess of 200,000 words - so a ridiculously long novel. I’ve enjoyed writing 50 word flash fictions and everything in between since then. What I’ve found is that certain story ideas are best expressed at certain word lengths. Being responsive and receptive to various story sizes makes a writer more deeply driven by inherent, organic narrative movement. Which translates hopefully to that writer producing fewer mutilated or mutated literary expressions.
Are there any freedoms, or limitations, in the form of novellas that may not be encountered when writing in other literary genres?
The novella has been a valued form in all genres and a constant factor within the evolution of storytelling from the beginning of written narratives. While novellas have been a standard feature of other publishing markets, currently in the US, UK and Australia, publishers of all genres are driven by an audience expectation that a book should be over 200 and under 500 pages long. For a writer, that’s simply another factor to take into consideration, not an insurmountable obstacle. So while it might be difficult to publish an 80 page novella on its own (though that happens) novellas are often a crucial edition to a collection of stories. ‘The Dead’ for instance in ‘Dubliners’, but ‘Goodbye, Columbus’ and ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ come to mind as well - three catalytic novellas in collections that launched the stratospheric careers of Joyce, Capote and Roth. And it’s also hard to imagine the careers of Kafka without ‘Metamorphosis’, Conrad without ‘Heart of Darkness’, Fitzgerald without ‘The Great Gatsby’. Whatever freedoms or limitations novellas can impose (the occasional heartache they can bring to a writer in our literary market) when they come into a writer’s life, they can be as elemental as they are essential.
Are there any novellas you particularly admire, or authors of novellas you consider demonstrate a mastery of the medium?
‘An Imaginary Life’, ‘Noon Wine’, ‘Snow Country’, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, ‘Prokleta Avlija’, ‘The Long March’, ‘Train Dreams’, ‘L’Étranger’, ‘Ballad of the Sad Café’, ‘Notes from Underground’, ‘Billy Budd’, ‘Boule De Suif’, ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, ‘Daisy Miller’, ‘Ethan Frome’, ‘The Royal Game’, ‘03’ by Valtat, ‘The Great Gatsby’, ’Eugene Onegin’ … and I could go on listing novellas I admire (it has been described as a ‘genre of masterpieces’ for a reason). If I was to recommend just one book, it would be Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, a collection of three novellas. The diversity she alone displays in these three pieces is stunning and should give any writer a sense of the impeccable prestige of the novella.
Do you have any follow-up novellas in the works?
I have a follow-up novella called ‘The Flood’ being published by Transit Lounge this November in my new collection, 'The Butcherbird Stories'. But ‘The Flood’ is not a follow-up to previous novellas I’ve written, it’s more directly connected to my novels 'Black Rock White City' and 'Atlantic Black'. ‘The Flood’ occupied my mind for about two years as a novel. I spent as much time working on the ideas and themes, possibilities and potentials, as my previous novels. When I came to write ‘The Flood’ I found it was most purely and potently expressed in 15,000 words. Anything more was dilution and distraction. And yet I felt the same level of achievement finishing ‘The Flood’ as my novels so I’m looking forward it going out into the world later this year.
What advice can you give writers who are working up the courage to write their first, or next, novella?
Lock into one storyline and commit yourself to fully express that singular narrative development with as much discipline and focus as you can manage.
About A.S. Patric
A.S. Patric’s debut novel ‘Black Rock White City’ is the winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award. His second novel ‘Atlantic Black’ was published in 2017 to critical acclaim. He is a winner of the Ned Kelly Award and the Booranga Prize, and is the author of ‘Las Vegas for Vegans’, a story collection shortlisted in the Queensland Literary Awards. He is also the author of ‘The Rattler and Other Stories’ and ‘Bruno Kramzer’. ‘The Rattler’ (novella) was shortlisted for the Lord Mayor’s Award and ‘Bruno Kramzer’ was shortlisted for the Viva La Novella Prize.
About Elisa McTaggart
Elisa McTaggart is the Program and Marketing Intern at Writers Victoria. She works freelance as a writer, photographer and project manager, while establishing a wilderness photography and nature writing art practice.